Learning to Teach: Bowdoin Teacher Scholars Program

This semester, fifteen aspiring teachers — three current seniors and twelve recent alumni — are enrolled in the Bowdoin Teacher Scholars Program, a five-year-old certification program run by the College’s education department. In the intensive spring course, the group is learning what it takes to become a middle or high school teacher.

After they have been certified by the state of Maine, the new teachers will pursue a number of paths, from working in public schools to earning advanced degrees. While their career ambitions may vary, many of the Bowdoin Teacher Scholars say they are pursuing a career in education because they see it as a way to help others and to serve the common good.

“I want to teach in a public school,” BTS student Zoe Eiber ’13 said. “I feel like it’s important to have good teachers in the public schools system. Part of why I love teaching is I feel there’s a social justice piece to it, and I’m making a difference.”

Laura Armstrong ’13 majored in history at Bowdoin and is now learning to be a social studies teacher, a choice she said is motivated both by her love for history and for working with others. “I am drawn to working with other people. I’m drawn to working with adolescents,” she said. “I think what brings me most into teaching is being able to think about really helping adolescents develop their sense of self and who they are.”

Updating the BTS Program

While Bowdoin has had a teacher-certification program for longer than five years, the program in its current form was launched in 2009 to produce “better prepared teachers who could meet student needs,” according to Associate Professor of Education Chuck Dorn.

This spring, the BTS program has a record 15 students. Since 2009, BTS has produced 36 certified teachers in total, so the current jump in participants is fairly significant.

The growing interest in the program is most likely due to the way the education department has restructured it. Now, for instance, alumni can enroll along with undergraduates. Only three BTS students are current seniors; the rest graduated last year or the year before.

The education department has also more carefully aligned its education curriculum to the BTS program, as well as helped create a new interdisciplinary major combining math and education to draw in more math majors.

Finally, more stipends are available to BTS students through the Snow Family Fund, with additional support from the Brodie Family Lecture Fund. While the BTS postgraduate program is tuition free, students must cover room and board.

This semester, Eiber and Armstrong are both student-teaching in public schools in Portland — Eiber is at King Middle School and Armstrong is at Casco Bay High School. In the BTS program, students are placed in local schools (stretching from Bath to Portland) where they teach two to three classes for 14 weeks under the watchful eye of a mentor teacher. As pre-service teachers, BTS students do it all: they prepare lesson plans, meet parents, take over cafeteria duties, grade homework and lead after-school activities.

The students also attend a weekly seminar with a Bowdoin faculty member, who not only teaches them in class but also travels to their classrooms to observe them in action and provide critiques. This year, professors Chuck Dorn and Katie Byrnes are splitting teaching duties. In the Monday night seminars, students analyze their classroom experiences, discussing subjects such as teaching and classroom management strategies.

Will Cogswell ’11 graduated from the BTS program last year and is now teaching English at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine. He said one of the benefits of the BTS program for him was demonstrating the value of reflecting regularly and deeply on his teaching practice. “I also enjoyed BTS’s emphasis on getting to know your students and teaching in a way that is best for your students,” he added. “The emphasis is on what is going to help students succeed.”

Eiber likens this challenge to solving a puzzle. “It’s such an intellectual puzzle to try to figure out how can you meet the needs of the students, how can you meet the needs of 20 kids who have totally different needs in the same class. And how can you convey complex subject matter in a simple way, and in different ways so you’re suiting everyone’s needs,” she said. “It’s always a puzzle to figure out, and that’s what really draws me to being a teacher.”

Throughout the semester, Bowdoin’s BTS students also study Maine’s certification standards and build their professional teaching portfolios. At the end of the program, the education department decides whether to recommend that the state certify the BTS graduates as secondary school teachers.

Bowdoin Teacher Scholars Now

Bowdoin students who have become certified secondary school teachers through the BTS program are working as close by as Brunswick and as far away as Hong Kong. Twelve are teaching in Maine; others are working in public or private schools in France, Washington D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Iowa, Texas, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Read more about what some program alumni are doing.

Producing Better Teachers

All of the BTS students are specializing in the subject they majored in at Bowdoin. Eiber, a Spanish major, grew up in Miami and studied abroad in Uruguay. “Instilling a love of language at the middle school age is super fun and important,” she said. “I think it is an important skill in our globalized world to be able to communicate with different people, to teach kids how to connect with people that are different from them.”

Cully Brownson ’14, a math major who is now student-teaching at Greely High School in Cumberland, said he was inspired to become a teacher after taking education classes at Bowdoin. And while he has always loved math, Brownson said he also got excited about the subject in a new way at Bowdoin. “[The professors in the math department] are very aware of their pedagogy and it’s been great to learn from the diverse instructors in the department. Through [them], I’ve come to see math through a new light, a light I wasn’t exposed to in high school,” he said, such as making connections between math and the outside world and working on math problems collaboratively. “I’ve had the fortune of learning math in this style of community, and it is an experience I want to share with my students.”

Biology major Patricia Thibodeau ’13 is student-teaching science at Deering High School in Portland. Next fall, she will pursue a master’s degree in marine biology. Though one day she might teach at a university rather than a high school, Thibodeau said she wanted to complete the BTS program because it will be relevant wherever she ends up. “Being a scientist and taking classes at Bowdoin really inspired me to answer these big-picture questions about why our earth’s changing and how it’s changing, and what can we do to help stop or mitigate those changes,” she said. “For me it’s a big pull to teach, so that I can help instill in my students that sense of inquiry.”

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